When many people think of seizures, they usually tend to associate them with dramatic events such as convulsions, falling, or unconsciousness. While these events are often linked to certain types of seizures, a person can have a seizure and it may not even be recognizable as one—to you or the person having it. There are many different types of seizures with a variety of signs. But seizures are really only a symptom of underlying problems in brain function. Let’s explore this complex topic to get a better understanding of how and why these neurological phenomena occur.
What Are Seizures?
Simply defined, a seizure is any sudden dysfunction of the normal electrical impulses that allow the brain to communicate and transmit messages in the process of functioning properly. I guess in layman’s terms, you could call it a “short in the system.” Whenever a disruption occurs, it is always accompanied by some sort of abnormal behavior, which may be severe, or it may be hardly noticeable. These may include uncontrolled movements, a lapse in consciousness or memory, and/or strange sensory experiences or emotions.
There are many factors that can result in a seizure, and some people may only experience one seizure in their entire lifetimes. People who have repeated seizures are diagnosed with a condition called epilepsy. Most epileptics have a chronic, recurring problem with seizures, but officially a person can be considered epileptic if they have had two or more unprovoked seizures.
Over 20 different seizure disorders have been identified, with epilepsy being by far the most common, affecting up to 2% of the American public. How common are seizures? Well, it is estimated that about 10% of all Americans will have one isolated seizure at some point in their life, and approximately 200,000 will experience at least one monthly. Epilepsy is most common in children and senior citizens over the age of 65, with about 50% of diagnosed cases occurring before the age of 25. However, it can appear at any age. Many children will naturally outgrow the condition as they get older.
What Different Types of Seizures Are There?
There are quite a few different categories of seizures. These are classified into two main groups: partial seizures, and generalized seizures.
Partial seizures, also known as focal seizures, derive their name from the fact that they appear to originate from just one area of the brain.
- Simple partial seizures are the mildest form, and don’t result in motor skill disruption or loss of consciousness. They may change the way you feel emotionally, or alter your sensory data by affecting how things sound, taste, smell, or appear to you visually.
- Complex partial seizures typically cause a loss of awareness while they are occurring. One of the most common types of complex partial seizures is called a temporal lobe seizure. These are often preceded by sensations known collectively as an aura that foretells the impending arrival of a seizure. Auras, the result of an electrical discharge (actually a small seizure in its own right), may appear as:
- A sudden strange taste or odor.
- A “deja vu” experience (feeling like you have been in an exact situation before).
- Sudden feeling of irrational fear.
- A “rising sensation,” as some have described it, in the abdomen.
Temporal lobe seizures typically last from 1-2 minutes, and victims usually do not appear to be unconscious, but may not be aware of their surroundings or have any memory of the episode. Many times they will stare off into space. They also will often experience something called automatisms, which are involuntary movements such as smacking the lips, hand rubbing, mumbling, picking repeatedly at things with their fingers, or swallowing repeatedly. Some folks will be disoriented or have a hard time speaking for a few minutes after the seizure. Many victims of temporal lobe seizures have been mistakenly accused of being intoxicated or mentally ill.
Generalized seizures involve multiple parts of the brain, up to and including the entire brain. Sometimes generalized seizures will start in one part of the brain and spread to others. The major types of generalized seizures include:
- Petit mal seizures: Also known as absence seizures, are often very hard to initially identify, because they are typically exhibit minor symptoms, and they occur most often in children. They may go unnoticed by adults for quite a long time because of these factors. Common signs of petit mal seizures include:
- Fluttering eyelids
- Staring off into space
- Lip smacking
- Hand Movements
They usually occur while a child is sitting quietly, and not during any physical activity, which can make them even harder to notice. A petit mal seizure usually only lasts 15-20 seconds, but they may occur in some patients up to 100 times per day. The most common age for the onset of absence seizures is 4-12, and many children who have otherwise healthy neurological systems will often outgrow the seizures. One potential danger with petit mal seizures is that if they are left untreated they can progress into other more serious types of seizures.
- Myoclonic seizures: This type most affects the muscles (“myo”), and is characterized by involuntary spasms or jerky movements of the face, tongue, arms, or legs. Myoclonic seizures most often happen when a person is first awakening in the morning. Loss of consciousness or other major symptoms rarely accompany this type of seizure.
- Atonic seizures: These are sometimes called “drop attacks” because they often cause victims, usually young children, to fall down. They usually happen during physical activity, and children who suffer from atonic seizures will often wear protective headgear as a safety precaution.
- Grand mal (tonic-clonic) seizures: Grand mal seizures are usually the most intense and severe type. They occur in two distinct phases:
- In the tonic phase, victims will often lose consciousness and fall down, typically followed by a 15-20 second period of muscle rigidity.
- The clonic phase results in 1-2 minutes of violent convulsions that occur in a rhythmic pattern.
After the clonic phase, patients may feel drowsiness or confusion, along with a headache. The whole episode can last from 30 seconds to five minutes. Sometimes the seizure can affect the whole body, but in certain cases only a few muscles, such as one arm or leg, or one side of the face are affected. These partial seizures are known as focal seizures.
What Causes Seizures?
There are many contributing factors when it comes to seizures, but the fact remains that in 50-70% of all epilepsy cases, the cause is not known for certain. Some of the more common causes for seizures include:
- Trauma to the head, usually from an accident of some sort. However, some instances of seizures in newborns are attributed to a traumatic birthing process. Incompatibility of blood types between mother and baby can also cause seizures.
- Toxic exposure to poisons such as lead, mercury, industrial chemicals, or carbon monoxide.
- Genetic abnormalities potentially involving several hundred genes is often suspected in epilepsy. All the whys and wherefores or this process are not well understood as of yet, but it is known that seizure disorders can at times run in families. Some researchers think that certain genetic dysfunction can place people at higher risk for getting epilepsy from such factors as toxic environmental exposure.
- Stroke or stroke-like events known as transient ischemic attacks (TIAs). Brain damage that occurs during strokes or TIAs due to lack of oxygen may account for the ensuing electrical disturbances that can result in seizures.
- Certain diseases such as measles, mumps, or diphtheria, especially if they are accompanied by a high fever.
- Fevers, especially high ones in very young children can result in seizures.
- Alcohol abuse can trigger seizures in some people. This can occur while they are drinking heavily, or during withdrawal from the drug.
- Certain sounds or sights, such as bright or rapidly flashing lights (strobe lights) can also result in the onset of seizures, usually only in people who already have a problem with seizures.
- Sleep deprivation, again typically in folks who already suffer from seizures.
- Meningitis or other conditions that involve inflammation of the brain tissue or its lining.
- Phenylketonuria (PKU), an inherited disease that can afflict newborns and result in seizures, as well as mental retardation.
Are There Complications That Can Occur From Seizures?
The most critical complication that can occur relating to seizure disorders is called status epilepticus. This potentially dangerous condition involves people who have continuous seizures, and can lead to difficulty breathing and can be potentially fatal in worst-case scenarios. Status epilepticus can be caused by several factors:
- Blood infections, usually as a result of meningitis or similar diseases.
- Brain diseases such as hypoxic or metabolic encephalopathy that are the result of chronic oxygen deprivation or other chemical/physical problems with the brain.
- Severe head injuries.
- Sudden discontinuation of certain anti-seizure medications.
How Can Seizure Disorders Be Treated?
The mainline remedy for most seizure disorders is the use of one of many medications. These can be appropriate at times, and may be employed initially in some cases to stabilize the patient. However, the side effects can be devastating to many folks, especially children. The short-term effects can make them very lethargic and disoriented, and the long-term consequences of using such strong drugs for many years are devastating. There are also some surgeries that can be done, but most have significant side effects as well, and some can be very dangerous and potentially leave patients worse off than before the surgery.
There is one very interesting option that has been quite successful on children between the ages of 1-10 with certain types of seizure disorders. It is called the Ketogenic Diet, and involves a regimen that is initially high in fats, and low in protein and carbohydrates. The theory behind it is that this diet encourages the growth of ketones, which encourage the body to use fats instead of sugars to produce energy. If the child is seizure-free after six months, the amount of protein and carbohydrates is gradually increased. It does have some risks associated with it such as low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) or excessive blood fats (hyperlipidemia), but many children have been cured of seizures from the diet, and its side effects are considerably less than those of many anti-seizure medications.
Seizures can be a very frightening thing to experience, or to see a loved one undergo. However, if seizures become an issue, the best thing to do is not panic, and learn as much as you can about what may be causing them and all of your option as far as managing seizures. Remember, knowledge is power, especially when it comes to the health and wellness of yourself and your family.